Just lately I have noticed something of an explosion in the number of crowdfunding pages being set up to support individuals or families going through tough times. If you’re not familiar with crowdfunding it’s essentially a way of supporting a project or cause by raising lots of small sums from a large number of people.

It came up in conversation recently and the concerns of the charity team I was talking to, their nervousness about it, got me thinking. The charity works with people who suffer from a particular medical condition and they had become aware of a Go Fund Me page set up to raise money for an individual recently diagnosed with that condition. They were concerned about whether such pages might divert attention, and therefore donations, away from organisations like them and questioned what, if anything, they should do in response.

“But if they supported us, they could help that person, and many more like them; I don’t get it.”

And it’s this blurred line between charity and, well…. charity – or at least, being ‘charitable’ – that I thought was worth exploring further. Thanks to the good folks of the Fundraising Chat Facebook group for helping me corral some of my thoughts…

If personal fundraising pages demonstrate anything it’s that we donate emotionally, rather than logically. It’s heartstrings versus purse strings. The most successful pages combine an often heartbreaking story, with an emotive photo and a tangible – and often time bound – ask. Importantly stories are jargon-free and without the clichéd fundraising language we should all be trying to avoid in our campaigns (‘making a difference’ is surely at the top of that hit list).

Essentially, these are people like us, except they are dealing with illness, injury, loss; the sorts of things that make us count our blessings. And we respond by doing what we can to help. We collectively pay for equipment, fund treatment and show we care by leaving messages.

This opportunity to support an individual and see exactly where your gift is going is appealing. As a donor you want to know you’re doing good. Savvy crowdfunders post regular updates and videos, use social media to share their page to a wider audience and source ‘real world’ donations to boost their overall total. The occasional few go viral and get picked up by the media, although this is by no means the norm.

An upshot of this is that pages quickly gain validity; if someone you like and trust has donated then it must be a good cause, right?

Well most likely yes, but there will be those rare occasions when all is not what it seems. Fundraising practices are the subject of significant scrutiny at present but what accountability is there around individual giving pages? Earlier this year the Eric Chevalier case in the USA became one of the first crowdfunding campaigns to end up in court. Ultimately there are laws around fraud and deception, but how sure can we be that our money is being used for the intended purpose. Do we actually mind if it isn’t, or if money collected over and above a stated target is used for something else?

Going back to the charity I was speaking to, one of their concerns was that, with limited spare cash, people would choose to support a local person or project rather than make a donation to a registered charity or recognised community group. Is this likely? I don’t think so. This 2014 study by NESTA shows that few consider what they give via crowdfunding to be a replacement for charitable giving. It’s likely that people even see such gifts as coming from a separate ‘budget’ i.e. you might go without a few cups of coffee or forgo a night out, donating what you would have spent to a good cause.

I think there’s also something to be said at this point about the appeal of one-off donations. I support certain charities by way of a monthly direct debit but occasionally make one-off gifts to others. These one-offs have generally been made on impulse because of the power of a story. They aren’t necessarily organisations I have wanted a longer term relationship with; I have made a donation and have got on with my day. This is likely to add to the appeal of the crowdfunding model; you may have the option to get more involved or you can simply give and feel good about doing so.

The irony is that while these pages embody what we, as fundraisers, have been doing for years, there is much we can learn from them. Rather than worrying if or how we should respond to them, we need to ask what they can teach us:

  • What are these pages doing that we’re not?
  • Who are they reaching that we’re not?
  • Are we doing enough to show donors the impact they make?
  • And most importantly, what can we learn from the way people tell their stories?

I would say this final point is the crux of the matter and for me, one of the Fundraising Chat contributors, Mary Cahalane, absolutely hit the nail on the head:

“We see the “importance of charitable giving” as a thing, when many donors just like to feel good about helping someone. Our communications [should] convey that same feeling. The feeling you get from sending money to a friend in need. What we say needs to feel that immediate and we have to be able to show that kind of impact.”

Maybe it is that simple?

Props to Ellen Janssens, Ephraim Gopin, Simon Scriver, Mary Calahane, Katie Lawson, Andrew Littlefield, Niamh Neville and Jonathan Waddington (who gets an extra one for sharing the NESTA report). Thanks all for sharing your views and inspiring me to put finger to keyboard.